There are millions of “birders” in the U.S., but how often do we think about what makes the bird songs we love possible? It might be a surprise to learn that lovely background life music is directly related to the Western Arctic and its astonishing diversity of wild avian life. The Arctic’s famous caribou are not the only species there that migrate.
The Western Arctic is one of the largest wild landscapes in the entire world and contains some of the best bird habitat on the planet. Countless millions of migratory birds from every continent hatch and raise their young in this area every year. Over 200 species of birds have been catalogued in the Western Arctic. Many birds travel vast distances over the course of the year. Especially in the nearly 24-hour summer days, diverse flocks can pass by for hours. At 22 million acres, the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska (The Reserve) exists as the largest intact piece of public land in the United States. The lakes, rivers, pools and riparian wetlands provide abundant food and house few predators—ideal habitat for all species of birds.
Take the Arctic tern Sterna (Sterna paradisaea) as only one amazing example. This little bird has the longest migration on Earth. Perhaps because of its activity level and lifestyle, it’s one of the longest-lived birds as well: up to thirty years of age. It has evolved and adapted to glide through the air as much as fly and can do most of its necessary tasks while airborne. In its seasonal migration—which gives it two summers every year!—it travels over 40,000 miles from the Arctic to the Antarctic.
Another Western Arctic bird known as a long-distance flier is the Semipalmated Sandpiper (Calidris pusilla). Unfortunately, these small shorebirds are threatened throughout their range by illegal hunting and loss of wetlands, essential habitat for this bird. They summer in the Western Arctic to birth and raise their young, then winter in South America. One geolocator-fitted sandpiper flew over 10,000 miles on its seasonal migration, including a six-day nonstop flight of 3,300 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. It is not unusual for flocks in the hundreds of thousands to pass overhead, belying the threat to the species. Sandpipers are not the only threatened birds in the Western Arctic. Others, like Spectacled Eiders (Somateria fischeri) and the Endangered Species candidate Yellow-billed loon (Gavia adamsii) call the The Reserve home, as well.
Known as “Alaska’s Duck Factory,” The Reserve supports a wide variety of ducks. Two of the best known are Northern Pintails (Anas acuta), who migrate from the Arctic to the equator, and Long-Tailed Ducks (Clangula hymenalis), who raise their young in the Western Arctic and winter on America’s east coast and the Great Lakes. The area is also critical for geese—the Western Arctic is the largest molting area in the Arctic for goslings. It sustains Canada geese (Branta canadensis), which can be found seasonally as far away as New Zealand, and Greater White-Fronted geese (Anser albifrons), which winter in central California.It is also home to 20% of the Pacific Black Brant (Branta bernicula nigricans) population, a bird that migrates from the Arctic to Baja California seasonally. The beautiful Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus) is also well represented in its seasonal migrations between the western Arctic to California. The topography of the Western Arctic is perfect for the swan as it loves shallow pools, lakes, and rivers. They arrive at the breeding ground in mid-May and leave in September.
The Western Arctic houses many migrant raptors, as well. The Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) is the most widely distributed of all eagles. They summer in the Arctic, then migrate as far as South and Central America. The Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus) summers in the Arctic as well, spending winters all across the Lower 48. The Red-tailed or Harlan’s Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis calurus), also known as the “chickenhawk” though it rarely commits depredations against barnyard fowl, is one of the most widely scattered, and incredibly adaptable hawks. It is found in biomes across the globe, from the Western Arctic as far as the West Indies and Central America. Two other hawks migrate seasonally through the area: the Sharp-shinned hawk (Accipter striatus), ranging from the western Arctic as far south as Panama, and the Northern or Hen harrier (Circus cyaneus), a highly distinctive form of hawk that used to hunt domestic fowl and ranges from the Arctic as far as Central America.
One of the more interesting migrant raptors visiting the Western Arctic is the Short-eared owl (Asio flammeus), named for the tufted feathers on its head that resemble ears. Unafraid of winter, this distinctive bird migrates from the Western Arctic across northern Canada and down into the eastern United States. Short-eared owls have one of the most widespread distributions of any bird. They occupy every continent except Antarctica and Australia. Their breeding season peaks in April—at that time it is not unusual to see them gather in flocks. It primarily feeds on rodents, very much enjoying the Tundra vole (Microtus oeconomus), a staple of its diet that is found throughout the Western Arctic.
While not expressly migratory, the Common Raven (Corvus corax), the most widely distributed of all corvids, cannot be forgotten. The bird is highly intelligent, adaptable to any biome, and found in all climates. The raven has a special relationship with the Arctic and its peoples, and is deeply entwined into the indigenous cultures of Alaska. To the Inuit and Yup’ik peoples of the Western Arctic, raven has been both a benevolent helper of the people and also a trickster figure who often gets himself in trouble. These cultures have revered ravens in song and story for between 8,000 and 10,000 years.
Such a span of time should give us all pause as to what we may be doing to the area, threatening an immense bird sanctuary that provides and sustains life for creatures all across the globe. The migratory birds supported by the Western Arctic are the same ones that you may pause to enjoy near your home, or even travel to seek out. The fact that some of these avian marvels live in story for eighty centuries or longer, and can fly over 3,000 miles in a single push, should inspire us all to do what we can to make sure all Arctic residents and their stories—human and nonhuman—continue to survive and thrive.